A solid month. Four whole weeks since Beecher had last stepped foot inside those garishly bland walls, on this property. Oz. The name still gave Beecher fits at times. He still awoke at daybreak, half expecting to hear the buzzers to wake him. Sometimes he even missed that hiss-and-wail locking mechanism that released them each day.
The lawyer stepped out of his father's Lexus SUV. A cold rainy breeze greeted him. The autumn months could be awful at times.
Beecher glanced around the countryside that surrounded the prison. A sea of endless hilltops, greens and browns blurred by soft sheets of rain. Gunmetal gray clouds spread out across the expansive sky. The sun was an imagination, a soft ring behind the putrid gray.
The prison itself looked like a black hole of life against the canvas of natural scenery behind it. An amalgam of grays, blacks and in- betweens covered the bland, metallic row of buildings. It seemed as though the whole property were tainted with the grime, the filth of the prisoners. As if the culmination of all these awful souls gathered in one place had destroyed the nature around it. Even the grass seemed deader as he approached the building.
Beecher made his way up the old concrete walk. Patches of grass and weeds sprouted through the dark, rain-slicked path. The front desk guard recognized him immediately as he approached the front desk. He seemed happy to be performing his job.
"Hi, I have an appointment with Sister Peter Marie."
"Let's see here," the guard said, skimming the schedule with his index finger. "Yep, there you are. I'll buzz her; she'll come down to meet you."
"Thanks." A sudden chill came over Beecher, and he shivered to compensate. He couldn't explain why.
"Tobias, so good to see you," Pete said. She embraced the man, and they shared a warm hug. "Come, let's go to my office."
Beecher walked through the dreadful gray bars, and they grinded, slammed shut behind him. He shivered again, then shrugged off his fears as best he could.
He took a seat in Pete's office, and she took her seat behind the desk.
They sat in stillness for a few moments. Pete arranged some things around her desk, and fidgeted with her pen.
"I know how hard it must've been to come back so soon."
"Actually, it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. Plus, I've been meaning to come and visit Keller anyway."
"I, uh, I asked you to meet me because I have some bad news, Tobias."
"When is there anything else around Oz?"
he smiled earnestly, but there was nothing humorous about his statement or her news. "It's going to be difficult for you, and I didn't want to tell you over the phone."
"Come on, just say it."
"Keller is dead, Tobias."
The words hit him like a ton of bricks. How could three words crush his heart so completely? He felt like he could implode. He turned his head to the side, tears forming streaks down his face. He thought again about how he hadn't cried this much when his wife died. He choked back the utter sobbing that would surely overtake him.
"How?" he asked in a broken, quiet voice.
Pete took a deep breath and sniffed. She was torn up herself over the death. Remain calm, she kept telling herself. "It was an apparent suicide."
"Apparently, Chris committed suicide."
"When did it happen?"
"Coroner says it was sometime Tuesday night, two nights ago."
Beecher buried his face in his hands and sobbed lightly. He felt like wailing, but decided it was best to keep as quiet as possible. Besides, if he let loose now, he wouldn't be able to speak for hours.
Pete pulled a chair up beside him, and rested an arm around his shoulder. It felt so good, this comforting gesture. It made Beecher think of Keller's strong hands, caressing his hair, massaging his shoulder and neck, comforting him through all the pain he had experienced.
He looked up at her, his eyes already red and puffy. "Those weeks ago, when I thought the state would kill him for those murders. I was so upset."
"Maybe my soul was trying to tell me something. Trying to prepare me."
Pete nodded. "Maybe."
"How could I be so stupid? How could I not have known?"
"Listen, Tobias. You cannot keep blaming yourself for the things other people do. Are you listening?"
He nodded weakly.
"Your wife, your son, and now Keller. You were only doing what you thought would help get your life back on track."
"I still killed them, directly or indirectly. In the end, it doesn't matter, does it?"
"Yes it does," Sister Pete replied quickly. "They chose a path, all of them. Yes, you killed Kathy Rockwell. Yes, you landed in jail. But your wife chose to kill herself. Keller chose to kill himself."
"If it was truly a suicide."
Pete sighed. "Yes. If it was a suicide."
Beecher continued sobbing for some 20 minutes. Sister Pete kept her wits about her and was able to comfort him. As he quieted down, she lifted his head and planted a kiss on his forehead. His eyes were gentle, sad. They were two beautiful blue orbs; it broke Pete's heart to see him sad. Those eyes should be joyful, she thought.
"Have," Beecher began. His voice was cracking and fading so much that it was hard to hear him. "Have they begun an investigation yet?"
"Yes. Yeah, Warden Glynn and a small team have been looking into it. There's no official finding yet. It's too soon."
"As long as they do it right," Beecher said. He seemed to be talking to thin air. He stared vacantly around her office, focusing on nothing.
"Is it possible to see the body?"
"It's in the morgue. Unless you're family, I don't think—."
"Sister Pete, I am family. Don't you see? Keller's got no family. I am his family," he repeated. She nodded.
"I'll see what I can do."
Down dark, forbidding corridors they walked: Pete, Beecher and McManus in tow. Beecher had never seen this part of Oz. It felt like a dungeon, down here, underground, with gray walls and black floors and mysterious stains. They turned corners and entered different hallways, finally finding the tacky sea green door marked "MORGUE."
The morgue itself was spotless, with chipped concrete walls and glaring fluorescent lights. The concrete floors, though water- stained, were clean and waxed. Three operating tables were arranged in a row, separated by various dangerous-looking instruments neatly arranged on stainless steel serving trays.
Two bodies were wrapped in the black bags. Anyone spending enough time in Oz would see plenty of those.
Beecher shook; he couldn't tell if he was nervous or scared or what he was feeling. "Who's the other one?"
McManus and Pete looked at each other.
"Vern Schillinger," they replied, almost in unison.
Beecher couldn't hold back the sadistic smile that spread across his lips. He couldn't help but enjoy this final farewell to his enemy.
"They found Vern's body in a closed-off section of the prison," Pete continued, filling Beecher in on the story. "He had been raped and tortured, then mutilated and left for dead." Beecher cringed; the word mutilated never sat well with him.
"Any ideas on who did it?"
McManus shook his head. "Nope. They still suspect the homeboys did it. But no one knows who did it, or why, or even how they got into the closed-off section of the prison to do it in."
Beecher sighed. He was ready, he kept telling himself.
"McManus, can you—."
"Sure," the manager replied, unzipping the bag. "You sure you want to do this?"
Beecher nodded, stepping back away from the bag a few inches.
McManus threw back the bag to reveal Keller's stone-cold expression. His eyes were still open, glaring. He looked peaceful, as they say of the dead. Any lines on his face had disappeared, and his normally furrowed brow was relaxed, calm. He looked at peace, and this image helped Beecher through the moment.
"Can I have a minute, please?" he asked of McManus. The unit manager nodded and joined Sister Pete in the corner of the room.
Beecher placed a hand on Keller's handsome face. His skin was so blue now, so dead and lifeless. He was freezing cold, unearthly, and his lips held a brilliant pinkish hue. Gone was his fire, his temper, the vibrant color in his cheeks and his personality.
Those eyes. Strangely, Keller's skin was bluer than his eyes. His eyes held a pale grayish color. With his fingertips, he closed his lover's eyes for the last time. The tears poured freely, and he went weak in the knees. Pete rushed up and grasped him under his right arm. He looked her way, grinned weakly as if to say `thanks,' then returned his gaze to the body before him. He didn't sob; he didn't have the strength to. But oh the tears. They came in rivers. McManus stood off in the corner watching. It was an upsetting spectacle, watching Beecher lose yet another love in his life.
"He's not in there, you know. Not anymore. That body is just a shell."
Beecher nodded, but Pete wasn't sure if he felt the same way.
"He's in a better place."
"Is he?" Beecher's voice was wounded, weak. "I'm not so sure."
"Come on," Pete said reassuringly. "Let's go back to my office and talk."
Beecher reluctantly stepped back from Keller's empty shell. He kissed his left index and middle fingers, then touched Keller's lips. Then he collapsed; the room around him went black.
He awoke on a couch, a soft old ragged piece of furniture. Pete's office.
Beecher sat up with a start and focused his eyes. Pete was behind her desk. "You're awake," she said smiling.
"How long was I out?"
"Ten, fifteen minutes."
Beecher sighed and collected his thoughts. For the longest time he sat in silent reflection, perhaps reverence for Keller's soul.
"You know, when Keller got shot a couple of months ago, he died twice in the operating room," Beecher said finally. "Did he tell you that?"
Pete shook her head, a somber look passing over her.
"Yeah, they brought him back from the dead twice. That's why he was so different when he got back to Oz." Beecher scoffed. "Different yet somehow exactly the fucking same."
"What happened? Did he remember dying?"
"He was sure that he was in hell. He said he felt the flames, the burning torture. He was sure they were going to send him there when he died.
Pete let these words sink in. The words covered the room like soot, and left the mood blackened.
"Tobias, I spoke with Keller after you left. We had several sessions over the past month."
"Yes. We talked about you, about his past, just his life in general." More tears streaked Beecher's soft, flushed cheeks. "He loved you till the end, you know."
Beecher nodded. He was silent for a while. "We didn't have the best love, you know. Nothing was pure about it, I guess. Nothing was innocent between us. Hell, it seemed like we hated each other as much as we loved. But it was love. And now, after this, I can barely remember the pain. The hurt. I just want to hold him again."
"I know," she said, joining him and placing her arm around his shoulder again. He loved this comforting posture. "Tobias, Chris left this with me a few months back," Pete said. She removed Keller's necklace from her pocket as she spoke and placed it carefully in Beecher's hands. It jingled lightly. "When I finally spoke to him about the shit he had done to me, he gave me this necklace. I think he would want you to keep it.
"Shit," he said rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. Beecher slipped the heavy necklace around his neck and slid it under his shirt. It felt cold against his flesh. "I should've visited him sooner."
"We can't live in should haves or ifs," Pete said.
"I know, I know." He glanced at his watch. "Oh, I have to get going."
"Tobias, are you going to be okay?"
He nodded, his soft eyes still moist with tears. "Holly is going to be getting out of school soon. I have to go pick her up."
"How are things? Are you adjusting to the outside life again?"
"Yeah, things are good. I've actually been closer to my family than ever before. It's strange, but the deaths I've experienced, all this tragedy." He brushed the flood of tears from his cheeks. "At least something positive came from it."
"Promise me something, Tobias."
"Promise you what, Sister Pete?"
"Promise me that you'll be okay."
"Done," he replied, smiling weakly.
"And visit me, every so often. Come and see me, and let me know that you're okay."
"You always cared, Pete. You helped me stay sane inside this place." Beecher swallowed hard. "I love you, you know that? I know it's not healthy to love your psychologist, but still. You're like my second mother." He smiled again, this time warmer and more convincing.
"I know what you mean," she said. She ran her aging fingers through his soft, layered hair. "You're like the son I never had."
"I'll never forget you, and I'll visit you often."
This made Pete smile. Once again, they embraced for a few moments. She didn't want to let go. Beecher didn't either, but he had to leave. Holly would be waiting. "Let me know about the funeral and graveside arrangements," he said.
She nodded and affected her self-assured gaze.
As he walked outside, the clouds above seemed to dissipate before his very eyes. A tiny ray of sunshine burst through the formations, illuminating the rows of green and brown hills across from the parking lot. Beecher looked skyward, letting the last drops of rain plod against his face. He couldn't help but smile as he watched the sun break through the clouds.
`Jesus lights' Holly had called them when she was younger. Those distinct rays of sunshine that peak through the clouds. He heard her voice in his memory: `Jesus lights, Daddy. Look at the Jesus lights." Though he should feel it, he didn't. He didn't feel alone at all. Quite the opposite. Beecher had the distinct feeling that someone, some presence, was there, with him, at all times. It could have been God, Allah, the Almighty. It could have been Keller, in whatever energy or form he occupied now, watching over him. All Beecher knew was that someone was out there.
He didn't feel alone at all.
Also be sure to check out his Alternate Ending